You’re one of fifty-two people who mill about in a large room. Each of you holds a playing card against your forehead. No one knows their own card, but you can see each other’s. The goal of this little game is to pair off with the highest card possible, but to accomplish this, your request for partnership has to be accepted by the other. Of course the Aces and Kings are the most popular and they pretty much know right away that they’re the cream of the crop. It’s instant mutual acceptance when an Ace requests to partner with another Ace. It works fairly quickly with the Kings as well. By the time this experiment is over, for the most part, Aces have paired with Aces, tens with tens, sixes with sixes, and twos with twos.
It must be kind of depressing being a two, being the last in the room to find a partner, watching all the high cards go, then the middle ones, and experiencing the horrible realization that you’re the low card that no one wants to pair with.
Research has shown this is how couples typically pair off in the real world. Hot women tend to be with hot guys. Sevens with sevens. Twos with twos. Through the process of assessing interest and receiving rejections, we get a pretty good gauge of where we stand relative to others, and we choose our partner accordingly.
The popular belief is that beauty is subjective—beauty is in the eye of the beholder—but really, we all hold similar opinions as to who we consider physically beautiful. Even people in one culture can easily pick out beauty in another culture. We are hard wired to perceive beauty.
So we do our best to enhance ourselves, to add value to our card. We’ll diet and exercise to maintain the best proportions or wear makeup to project the illusion of youth. We do this because it’s necessary to attract a partner with the most sexual allure. We value other traits too, but physical beauty reigns supreme. Talents can add to one’s overall allure but it’s more like one suit value trumping another. Adding a Harvard degree to a killer body might make you the Ace of Hearts to the Ace of Clubs. In other words, talent, charm, and intellect can increase the value of your suit, but not your pip value.
We often talk about the shallowness of physical beauty and how real beauty is something within, and there is a certain internal beauty we do admire. It’s this internal beauty that makes a close friend or relative loveable in a heartwarming kind of way, but this kind of beauty doesn’t translate to romantic attraction. They are two distinct kinds of beauty—one endears us to many friends and the other excites a potential romantic partner.
So can a Six ever make it with an Ace? It happens but it’s not common. If we’re slightly devious, we’ll try some sleight of hand. Alcohol to level the playing field. The use of power and/or intimidation. Money.
Our stories, myths and legends try to convince the lower valued cards to hold out hope and that maybe in some perfect universe, Marisa Tomei might be attracted to short, stocky, bald men.
The lesson that many of our most cherished love stories attempt to drive home is that inner beauty is everything. But in what fairy tale is Prince Charming a three hundred pound oaf with big ears and acne? The truth is, most fairy tales and stories are populated by pretty heroes and ugly villains.
So what about the twos and threes? What is their destiny? To become witches? Criminals? Is this what we expect from less physically attractive people? With constant rejection and low societal expectations, wouldn’t a two or three naturally come to resent the world? I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt that sinking feeling of being the last man or woman standing in the room—it sucks—but we all haven’t faced this rejection on a day-to-day basis. This rejection does not come from only potential sexual mates. Pulchronomics, which studies the economics of beauty, shows us prettier people earn more money than their plain counterparts. Handsome children earn more attention from teachers. It’s no wonder that criminals tend to be uglier than most.
Obviously, being ugly does not make one a criminal just like being depressed doesn’t cause someone to commit suicide. There is, however, a striking correlation, and I wonder if we fully consider and appreciate the consequences of being physically unattractive and receiving constant rejection.
What we do tend to do is ridicule those who are preoccupied with their looks. But in a world where looks has a greater bearing on future success than education, a focus on primping actually seems to be the smarter path to take.
This being said, we also tend to overvalue the benefits of beauty in relation to overall happiness. Perhaps being the perpetual object of desire makes it easier to engage in extra-marital affairs, which can lead to painful divorces, breakups, or love triangles. Perhaps the promiscuity associated with Hollywood is less indicative of the loose morals of show business and more the result of extraordinarily beautiful people constantly in the midst of each other.
So what’s the lesson? Obviously beauty matters more than it seems appropriate to acknowledge. But the more important question is what can we change? Do we try to make the not-so-physically attractive more eye-appealing and encourage vanity? Or do we try to change the perception and importance of beauty? Can we really transform something that is hard-wired within us?
I think it would be nice if we could occasionally ask for a reshuffling of the deck.
In the mid 60’s, a young Mario Andretti worked his way through the ranks of professional drivers by racing stock cars. A rubber company sponsor delivered the tires to the track without treads, so that the proper pattern could be cut in on site, customized for the conditions and track and driving style. This was state-of-the-art, for everyone knew that a tire had to have treads to grip the track.
One day at practice, Mario anxiously awaited the delivery of his tires so he could shake out a new car for the race that weekend. But the delivery was delayed until an hour before the track closed. Mario, not wishing to lose a day of practice, asked that they be installed as they were- slick, uncut. Every one warned him he would slide right off the track for everybody knew a tire had to have grooves to function properly.
Mario insisted, saying he was more interested in just getting to know the car, and would push for speed another day. He challenged the track, pushing only as fast as he felt he could control the car.
He set a new track record that day, not just by a few seconds, but by fifty per cent.
Reason said that tread gripped the road, kept the car from sliding off due to angular momentum on the corners. No one doubted the assumption. Mario demonstrated the actual physics, overlooked by a generation of reasonable people. The grip of the tire is determined in large part by the area of rubber in the contact patch, the more the better. Cutting grooves into the tire only diminished the amount of rubber in contact with the track, making them less “sticky” than having no tread at all.
Now everyone runs on slicks- it is the reasonable thing to do.
We don’t believe the dinosaurs thought about the comet that wiped them out, but I’m sure it pissed them off. The whole consciousness of Gaia, Mother Earth, was offended by that death blow. Life had evolved to fill every niche; land, air, and sea teemed with it. Stable for millions of years, Mother Earth had achieved perfection, she thought.
Then that outside force, a war hammer from the stars, and Nature started over, this time not just to fill every biosphere of the earth, but to face down threats from the stars as well. She knew it would take more than just biology; it depended on emergence, characteristics of a complex system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Complex systems like our large brains; we call it intelligence, the ability to reason.
20 million years later and here we are. Intelligence is expensive, the power to reason comes at great energy costs to the organism, and there has only been one species that has made the cost workable. Us, with maybe the large sea mammals holding a back-up copy of the basic software.
There was a time when the human species was on the endangered list, a time when there were only a few thousand of us. But we made it through that narrow gate, we made our large expensive brains work for us, and now we rule the planet. Some of nature’s processes are still outside of our control, but we’re working on gaining control of even those.
So, we are Gaia’s tool, evolved to extend the shield of life beyond the boundaries of our own atmosphere. And what are we doing? Struggling with petty arguments, backing away from the great challenge for which nature created us, turning our backs on the stars.
Today we struggle with a government that has shut down, unable to do even the most basic of things. Our sky watch is dark. And in less than a month, an asteroid will pass between us and the orbit of the moon, death whistling by to remind us that the universe is uncaring, if not downright hostile.
The sky is falling. Reason has failed. Winter is coming.
It was no surprise that Roger Federer breezed through the first three rounds of the 2013 US Open. Even though his ranking has faltered, dropping now to number seven after his amazing resurgence in 2012 that saw him briefly regain the number one ranking, we still expect him to win. He’s Roger Federer. Watching Federer is, as David Foster Wallace described, a religious experience. After his loss to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open and his early exit at Wimbledon, we are now wondering, what’s happened to Roger?
Is Age Catching Up to Him?
The logical answer is that he is simply getting old. Age eventually brings down our greatest sports icons. Yet Federer is only 32. Michael Jordan was just beginning his second run of domination at 32. Watching Federer against Robredo, it appeared that Federer was the better player. His grace on the court is still evident. His agility is there as his incredible shot making ability. He still shows that he is the most technically proficient tennis player in the history of tennis. So where is the drop off?
Is it Something Physical?
Physical concerns are always an issue with age, especially with tennis players. The game is violent on the joints. Think of this. A tennis player goes from a near sprint to a complete stop, applying an enormous amount of pressure on the knees, hips, and back. It’s one thing to do this on grass or clay where the softer surface provides more give, but on the hard courts, the body takes a beating. Every tennis player is eventually going to limp off the court.
But Federer has avoided most of these physical ailments. He has never missed an extended amount of playing time. Why? Probably because he is the most relaxed tennis player we’ve ever seen. Compare a still shot of Federer striking a ball with one of Nadal. Tension causes more injuries than athletes tend to realize. Federer has remained healthy because of his ability to relax. I’m sure he’s employed some form of autogenic training along with meditation to achieve this level of calmness on the court. Despite a sore back in the early summer, Federer went into the US Open claiming to be completely healthy. He certainly looked physically healthy.
So why is Roger losing?
I’ve always argued that the difference between the number 1 player in the world and the number 100 is actually quite small. Let’s look first at why Roger was winning. When he was at his peak, he was about 1 point per game better than the lower ranked opponents. 1 point per game doesn’t seem like that much separation, but it will get you results like 6-2, 6-1. Why was Roger better? Of course there’s his technical proficiency. Secondly, he had superior shot making ability from defensive positions (i.e. his squash shot).
Thirdly, for ten years he has been mentally dominant. This is where he gained separation from the top players. Against top 40 players, he was probably about 0.5 points better per game and against top ten players, a little less than that. Compared to the top tier of players who all had similar technical proficiency and shot making ability, Federer maintained a consistent edge because he believed he had an edge and because he did everything in his power to ensure that his opponents would not have the belief. This is mental dominance.
It reminds me of a scene in Orson Card’s Ender’s Game when Ender explains why he continued to beat up a bully even after he’d knocked him down.
“Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too.”
Federer had to win just about all his matches to maintain his aura of invincibility and plant a seed in every opponent’s mind that they could not beat him. With the exception of Nadal, he succeeded in this. There was no saving it for just the big tournaments. He brought it every tournament, playing with the fear that if lost just once to somebody, maybe, just maybe they might begin to believe they could beat him. One of the most dangerous weapons an opponent can have is belief.
Then Nadal beat him on grass. Then Djokovic and Murray, which shouldn’t have been that farfetched because in ability they were equals. The only thing that had previously prevented them from beating Federer was the lack of belief they could beat Federer.
With others knowing he could be beaten, he lost the mental edge he had held over his opponents for so many years.
But losing to Robredo? And then Igor Stakhovsky? How could this happen? Federer blamed his losses on confidence, but this is only part of the bigger picture.
Where has he slipped?
I remember a comment Pete Sampras made shortly after he retired from tennis. He said that the biggest deterioration with age is not physical. It’s mental.
It’s mentally exhausting being the best. Physically, Federer feels fine which is why it’s so hard for him to understand why he’s losing and why he legitimately seems baffled when he does lose. He still strikes the ball as solidly as he ever has. He has not lost a step as some analysts maintain. He just gives up a few more free points than he used to. Tiny slips in concentration. A fraction worse than before. But when the margins are so small, especially with the top players, wins turn to losses.
Mental slippage? Really?
As brutal as tennis is on the body, it may be more brutal on the mind, at least for people blessed/cursed with the compulsive desire to be the best. Training the mind to concentrate for extended periods of time takes practice. An interesting bi-product of this intense concentration is the seemingly absurd but true anomaly that when a top competitive tennis player comes off the court, he can recall every point in a match. They’re not consciously memorizing points; it’s just their level of focus is so high and they are so in tune with what’s going on that this notion becomes possible.
Thanks to mental toughness pioneers such as Dr. Jim Loehr, the techniques for staying focused and relaxed has advanced in tennis as much as the technology in equipment and the understanding of biomechanics. Free points are harder to come by and top players no longer have the luxury of being able to slip in and out of focus like McEnroe and Connors did when they had their outbursts or interactions with the crowd. It used to be that “being in the zone” was a rare achievement. Now, it’s a daily necessity. There are those who argue that tennis has become more boring because the personalities have become much more subdued. But I prefer watching the mental giants like Federer because simply because it’s incredible what they’re doing out there, sustaining excellence point after point. Mental giants can be intimidating in a quiet way.
A male tennis player has to sustain focus for three to four hours (sometimes even more) in a closely contested three-out-of-five set match. The normal amount of time the human mind can maintain uninterrupted concentration is about two hours. (However, with the vast number of diversions available to us, we are probably evolving—or devolving—to the point where even two hours is a stretch.) This is why movies typically do not run much longer than two hours and when they do, the audience begins to feel fatigued. This is why professional poker players immediately stop playing when they feel mentally fatigued.
In competition, or when the stakes really matter (in a war zone perhaps), we can push our minds to do a little more. But pushing the mind like this is impossible to sustain forever. Even chess players retire. Federer has done this week in and week out for over ten years, not just staying atop the rankings, but pummeling his opponents. Because of his success, he has played more matches than anyone else. But now the mental strain is beginning to show even before the physical deterioration. During his fourth round loss against Robredo, the shots were there, but there were a few more loose points than we would expect to see from Federer.
What to Expect from Federer Looking Forward
There’s no doubt Federer continues to have the competitive desire to be the best, and I disagree completely with those who suggest Federer should retire or that he’s even lost a step. Physically, he should be able to compete with the best for the next three or for years. If he rests and refreshes mentally, he should be able to put together a run like he did to end the 2012 season. But the days of dominating day after day, week after week, year after year are over. Unfortunately, the human mind can be pushed only so far.
Pete puts the phone on the bar top. “No. It’s ok.” He wishes Roxanne would put her hand back on his leg, but she’s focused on her drink, taking exploratory sips. A true novice.
“So, I’m here from out of town,” she says. “Milwaukee to be exact. I’ve been stuck at a trade conference all day. I really don’t want to go back to my hotel room and sit there by myself, you know, watching Law and Order all night. So, how does dancing sound?”
“Sounds good, but I’m not much of a dancer. Bad leg.”
“We don’t have to dance.” She puts her hand back on his knee.
He wants her right now, and as she massages his knee he remembers Janie Whitlock and how she let him put his hand up her shirt when they were sixteen and passionate about everything that didn’t involve school. He didn’t ask. He just did it because it felt right. He had approached from behind and wrapped his arms around her waist. Her body relaxed and her head went limp as it tilted back and slightly to the side. He kissed her neck while his hands climbed up her body her closer and then he had both hands under her bra massaging her breasts. Maybe that’s not exactly how it happened, the sights and sounds blurred by time, but he knows he remembers the feeling just right.
“I had an accident a few years back,” he tells Roxanne. “Ran into a tree trying to avoid a plastic bag floating across the road. I thought it was a dog. I get around good now, but dancing’s asking a bit much. But I am proud to say the bag is fine.”
Roxanne laughs. She swivels her stool until she’s completely facing him. Her drink is empty. So is his bottle of beer. He has a two-fisted hold on it even as it’s sandwiched between his legs.
“Let’s order something fun,” she says.
He orders her a Long Island iced tea and a beer for himself.
“Beer is boring,” she says.
But it’s cheaper. “I’m a man of the bottle, remember?” He does some mental mathematics, which is considerably tougher now after his sixth beer. He wonders how he’s going to pull it off, the bill. The phone vibrates again. He’s not so hopeful this time. It’s a text from his wife. It reads, “I took $40 from your wallet. Nicole needed it 4 school. Home soon?”
Roxanne rotates to face the bar again as the bartender prepares her drink.
“That bag bankrupted me,” Pete says to regain her attention.
“No, really. I had to file for bankruptcy. I was between jobs. No insurance. All my credit cards, gone. Do you know what it’s like to have absolutely nothing?”
Roxanne leans into him and says softly, “You always have something.”
He can see down her blouse. She’s about an 8. He hopes he’ll get a better look, but the bartender ruins the moment by sliding the drinks under their noses. She leans back in her stool.
Pete says, “I used to be a middle linebacker. I was good. Played a little in college. I was quick when I had my legs at full strength. But I quit when my uncle died. Kind of a second father to me. Cancer.” Why is he talking about this? “I still miss him.”
She puts a hand on his shoulder, which makes him want to cry.
“You know, this place really used to be a barn,” Pete says.
He imagines what it would be like with Roxanne, putting his arms around her and kissing her neck and crawling his hands over her skin. “Like real animals. My friend Janie had horses. We’d ride them—there was nothing around here back then. It was real peaceful. But that was a long time ago. She used to train horses. Thoroughbreds.”
“You’re not that old.”
“No, I’m not. But with this gimpy leg I sure feel like it.” He’s blowing it, he knows.
She leans back. “I’m sorry. I really am. I’m sure it’s tough.”
She’s not smiling anymore and he wishes he could bring it back, wishes that she would lean forward again and give him another eyeful. What will it take for her to invite him back to her hotel room? They both finish off their drinks.
“Another round?” he asks.
She thinks about it. “Sure, but this one’s on me. I insist.” She tosses her credit card on the bar.
Pete gets another text message. This one’s from Rick: “Sorry dude cant bail u out this time.”
Nearby, a spirited game of darts is underway, the intensity ratcheted up by a stern looking man with a brown crewcut and gray sideburns. The man’s berating his younger opponent for not taking the game more seriously.
Pete’s phone vibrates again, but he doesn’t look at it because he feels like he’s neglecting Roxanne. “Enough about me,” he says to her. “What about you?”
She swivels back to him. “What do you want to know?”
“You said you’re here for some kind of conference. What do you do?”
“Credit cards. I work for a bank. We’re starting—”
“Banks. That’s twisted. My business scars your foot while yours basically guts me.” The beer is going down much faster now.
“It’s just a job for me. To pay the bills. It’s nothing personal. I don’t even like my job.”
“My job’s really pretty pointless. I mean, I show up, but come on, do they really think I can tell if things are going good better than a computer can? I supervise a system so automated I’m the only live person left. Nobody notices when I’m there. No one cares if I’m not. I bet you have no idea what that’s like.”
“I’ve gotta piss.” He’s been putting off his trip to the bathroom mainly because he doesn’t want Roxanne to see him walk, fearing that she might attribute his stagger to drunkenness rather than just a bum leg. Or vice versa. He’s true too drunk to tell what he’s really afraid of. But he can’t hold it. He also can’t resist taking the opportunity to look at his phone. Another text from his wife: I like it when you’re here. I like it when you’re here on time. He trips on the leg of a stool at the far end of the bar and twizzles on his good leg, coming out of his spin without falling only by collapsing onto the foosball table. There’s no going back, he thinks.
He has to forge a path to the restroom by squeezing between sweaty bodies until he reaches a clearing near the dart boards. He pauses to let the more fiery of the competitors toss a triple twenty. Pete remembers the days when the guys used to call him “Mr. Max” because of his ability to nail the triple twenties and score frequent maximums. Pete sees a possibility.
Pete swirls the last swallow of beer remaining in the bottle. He’s done with this place. Even though it’s got the same name, the bar isn’t the same under the new ownership. The Barn Tavern used to be a barn, but now the haystacks framing the doorway and the scarecrow painfully pinned to the wall, its legs straddling the dartboard, are more like offensive jokes at the expense of the building’s heritage. The new owners have also changed the sign outside, capitalizing the “N” in “barn” and setting it slightly askew so that it looks like Bar ‘N’ Tavern, which is redundant and stupid and leads Pete to think there’s no way this place is going to last more than a few months.
“This place really used to be a barn,” Pete informs the bartender whose shaggy beard doesn’t even begin to hide his youth.
“That’s what they say.” The bartender’s arms are shaved so that the Dylan verse tattooed on each forearm is clearly legible. His right arm says, “behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain” while the left counters with “he not busy being born is busy dying.”
“No, really,” Pete insists. “I grew up around here. Me and Janie Whitlock used to make out back there where the restrooms are. She used to train Thoroughbreds.”
The bartender smiles and nods before quickly turning his attention to the pair of young women who are seated a couple stools down. Pete doesn’t like this new bartender. He’s too young and probably thinks the ink on his arms marks him as a deep thinker. And, to top it off, he’s effectively ended Pete’s night, having slid the totaled tab under Pete’s nose just a few minutes before.
The 10 p.m. crowd, consisting mostly of guests from the new hotel just down the road, has replaced the regulars. Pete’s ready to go. He pulls out his wallet and is stunned when he finds it empty, the forty dollars he withdrew from the bank last Friday, gone. He searches the slits and pockets of his wallet, pulling out receipts, coupons and free membership cards that clutter it. No cash. He panics.
In an extended moment of pathetic desperation, he totals the value of the coupons. A buy-one-get-one-free deal at IHOP. At least a seven dollar value. Five dollars off a full service car wash. Three dollars off a large bucket of golf balls at Shady Oaks Driving Range. A forty-cent-off coupon on a twelve-pack of toilet paper. Everyone needs toilet paper. A coupon for two free tacos, whose value is increased by the “no purchase necessary” clause advertised in bold letters. In total, his fifteen dollars and forty cents worth of coupons might be a fair exchange for his ten-dollar tab. He’s almost seriously considering offering this when he notices the bartender and the two women staring at him, sharing little giggles. Pete quickly folds the coupons and stuffs them back into the wallet. A stupid idea. And what the hell happened to his forty dollars?
He pulls out his phone and is in the middle of sending a pleading text message to his buddy Ray when a woman seats herself on the stool next to his. She wears glasses. Pete digs chicks with glasses. The woman is taking in the ambiance of the place, and he hopes her eyes will eventually settle on him.
When they do, he says, “Hey. I’m Pete.”
“Really? You’re the third Roxanne I’ve met today!” She’s only the first Roxanne he’s met in the past month, but he’s put a lot of thought into this line while toiling through boredom at the plant. The genius of it is that the woman is immediately grouped in with two other nondescript women, and motivated by the prideful desire to stand out above the unremarkable Roxannes, she’ll try to impress him. Eventually she’ll rationalize that she’s doing this because she likes him. This plan has worked a thousand times in his imagination.
She smiles. “I bet I’m the best Roxanne you’ll ever meet.”
He takes the last swig of his beer then smiles. “We’ll see.”
She scans the liquor bottles lining the shelves. “I don’t know what to get,” she says. “I’m not someone who usually comes to bars.”
“And I’m not someone who usually leaves bars.”
She laughs. “So what would you recommend for a novice like me?”
“Well, do you want something smooth and fruity or something strong and hard that will put you on your back?”
“Stop!” she says cutely. She touches his arm, which causes the hair on it to stand up and his body to tense.
He waves to the bartender. “Get this lady a Cape Cod,” he calls out.
The bartender comes over. “Sure thing. Same tab?” the bearded bartender asks.
Now Pete’s screwed. He knows it. “Yeah. You can put it on my tab.”
“So, Mr. Pete,” says Roxanne, looking completely invested, “what do you do besides never leaving bars?”
“I’m a man of the bottle. Seriously. I’m a manager at a bottle plant.” This isn’t completely untrue. What he manages is to remove the defective bottles from the line. Actually, the machine does that automatically, but he has to supervise it and make sure the machine, which operates at the precision of something like 1/1000 mm, is properly sorting the good bottles from the bad ones. Basically, his job is not needed and he keeps it only because when the bottle plant opened here a few years ago, the company promised the city it would maintain a certain number of employees in exchange for even more lucrative tax breaks. But really, if he calls in sick, no one fills his spot. He’s been sick a lot this year.
“So, what exactly do you do there besides down a few when no one’s looking?” she asks.
The bartender slides her drink in front of her.
“We make the bottle, not the booze.” He lifts his empty beer bottle for her to inspect. “You see this. This is glass. It is one-hundred percent reusable and doesn’t decompose. You can’t say that about plastic or anything else.”
She crosses her legs. She has nice ones, he thinks. He also thinks she’s being flirtatious until she takes off her sandal and shows him the long scar on the inside of her right foot. “I got this from a stepping on a broken bottle.”
“That’s quite a scar. Thanks for showing it to me.”
She blushes. “Sorry about that. It’s not something I usually show people. But since you mentioned your connection to bottles…”
The bartender brings him another Budweiser. He must have misinterpreted Pete’s raising of the bottle for Roxanne to inspect as a request for another. Pete’s really got to do something about this issue of a tab.
“There are other parts of me that make up for the parts that are scarred,” Roxanne says, breaking a silence that was gaining momentum.
“We’re all scarred in one way or another,” he says, thinking he’ll sound deep and empathetic, but the words feel cold and hollow.
She excuses herself to go the bathroom. Pete takes the opportunity to pull out his cell phone and send a flurry of text messages to loyal friends who might be able to rescue him by coming to the bar and covering his tab.
When Roxanne walks back from the restroom, she seems more lustrous, and Pete’s trying to figure out what exactly she did to herself. She walks with confidence, he notices. He stuffs his phone into his pocket.
She puts her hand on his leg to brace herself as she climbs onto her stool, but she leaves it there even after she’s seated.
“Do you like to dance?” she asks.
Before he can answer, his phone vibrates.
“You’re buzzing. Maybe that means we should go.” She laughs nervously.
We? He nonchalantly pulls out his phone. He hopes it’s Ray, Juan, or even Tony replying to his texts. It’s not. It’s his wife.
It’s 2:30 a.m. and the diner is so packed we have to wait to be seated. A large painting hangs in the foyer. I know it well because it was the cover of Chance’s first album, Arcade Plush. The subject seems innocent enough, though quirky—stuffed animals jammed inside an arcade plush machine—but something about the scene is disturbing. Maybe it’s the slightly askew perspective that seems to suggest it’s worth no more than a passing glance. But I think it’s the dire situation of the stuffed animals that makes me feel queasy. I didn’t notice it in the glossy, diluted form that I’m more familiar with, but in this one, I can see the bulging eyes of the animals are pleading, not so much with a “pick me, pick me!” anticipation but more of a sullen, please-get-me-the-hell-out-of-here look you’d find on a crusted-lipped, starving child in some far-off, impoverished area of the world. And then the bodies of the animals aren’t light and fluffy but instead seem weighty and imposing as if they share a common purpose to crush and disfigure each other—a giraffe’s neck in the stranglehold of a purple elephant’s tusk; a unicorn’s head positioned between a monkey’s legs, putting an unsuspecting velveteen bunny in the immediate foreground in a precarious position. The overhead grappling, grab-o-matic prongs seem so spindly and useless that they don’t even earn a glance from the animals, as if they know better than to expect help from above.
Chance turns down the first two available tables to get the booth he wants. He recognizes a waitress. He points her out to me and says, “Those eyes are like a bass groove that you can’t get out of your head and will creep up on you in some pretty random moments.” And then I realize why he came here.
Those eyes belong to Mazie Allen, and when she sees him, she quickly approaches. “Stanley Goldstein!”
He doesn’t stand, forcing her to stoop to hug him. “I’m still Chance Casper until I leave this place,” he says.
“I heard you were in town. I would’ve come to the show if I could’ve gotten off work. It’s our busy time. Four days till Christmas. How was it?”
“Same. Automatic for the last five years. You know, this was our last—”
“Hold that thought. We’ll catch up when things die down in here a bit,” she says.
She rushes away to check on other customers.
“She used to come to all of our gigs,” Chance tells me. “She bought into the myth of rock ‘n’ roll glory, thinking that just a taste of that counter-culture elixir might free her to some kind of deeper illumination. Imagination freed is illumination achieved, I’d tell her. Girls will believe anything you tell them as long as it’s blended with the right mix of poetry and booze. She was a good lay.”
I’ve never known Chance to talk this way. This isn’t how he was back when he was Stanley and we were a couple of college students with crazy perspectives of the world. There’s some bitterness and resentment built up inside of him. He won’t stop talking about Mazie; I realize she was something more.
“You know, she did the art to our first album cover. That one out front. That got her art more exposure to the world than she would have ever gotten doing anything on her own. She was an artist, self-taught, but a total hack. The problem with her was that she was blind to original perspectives. She spent all of her time going over the masters trying to copy their techniques and producing half-witted composites always a shade off. Guess it’s no surprise she’s waitressing now.”
“So she was more than just your average groupie.”
“The ultimate road warrior, you know. She had the enthusiasm of a religious disciple. My parents hated her.”
I ask him how he felt about her. Really.
He responds with several minutes of silence. “I loved her. And then she left—hitched a ride and came home to Fargo. My mom knew about it before I did. How the hell does that happen? They hated each other. Women don’t get it, but they bond in their confusion. They have this notion of how things should be, and if things don’t fall between those two narrow lines, shit, everything falls apart. Everyone gets bored traveling down the same highway, and women, they just freak out if you detour for some sightseeing. And most people have to create this illusion that even though we’re bouncing off the walls, we’re somehow staying within the lines. Not me. I put it out there like it is. I am about truth. If people can’t handle it, they don’t belong in my life.”
Out of the original band, only Simon (the drummer passed out with his head on a bongo) and Chance remain. I ask him about the rest of the original band. He knows I’m asking specifically about Sal, the guitarist who many considered the life of the band, the one with the flare and million-dollar smile.
“After nine years of jamming with us he got amped on the fantasy that if you got married and went to school to get a business degree and had a life where you work inside an accounting office punching numbers into a computer and pressing compute and then turning it into your boss with a big juvenile grin on your face like you want a gold star or something but really you’re just begging for money like any guy on the street, that somehow that would make you happy. And he took that route. You know what happened to him? He got married. He got his job. He got a promotion. He got fired. He got divorced. Now he’s living in a shack up in Portland and working in a bookstore. And the only reason I know this is because he randomly Facebooked me and sent a message that said, ‘Hey man, you still playing in a band? I wanna get back.’ Fuck that. We’d moved on.”
“So how do you really feel about him?” I ask.
He laughs. “He’s probably happier than me.”
The crowd finally thins. As cars back out, their lights cast a diffused glow through the snowfall. Mazie returns and chooses my side of the booth, forcing me to scoot over.
“So how long ya’ in Fargo?” she asks him.
“Plane leaves tomorrow night.”
“I dunno. Boston.”
“That’s nice. Visit the folks for the Christmas holidays. How are they?”
“Hey listen,” I say. “You think I could crash at your place? I left the keys to the van with Simon.”
“Ah, Simon. How is the little drummer boy?”
“Still a sucker for love but keeps a steady beat.”
“That guy. He hardly says a word but gets any girl he wants.”
Chance puts his hand on the table and his fingers do the same unconscious crawl across the surface that I’ve seen many other musicians do—the body never relenting in its desire to make music—but here I feel like his fingers are doing a courtly dance, hoping that she might make contact with them. “He didn’t get you,” he points out.
“He didn’t want me.”
“So listen, about the place to stay. You think I could crash at your place? I don’t mind waiting until you get off.”
The smile she gives him in response looks motherly. “Stanley, I’m married.”
“I’ve been married for five years now.”
“But online you’re listed as Mazie Allen.”
“The miracle of Facebook. Is that how you found out I’m working here?”
Chance takes a slow sip of coffee in response. “I’m not stalking you. You can turn around and walk away, and I won’t follow.”
“I kept my name because I had a following…with my artwork.”
“You still doin’ that stuff? Why are you working here then?”
“Aw, come on. You know how it is with art, never knowing when the paychecks will come. This gives me a steady income and it gets me out of the studio to draw on some real-life inspiration.”
“What does he do?”
“The guy. The one you married.”
“Well, he’s in music, too.”
“In a band?”
“Actually, he’s the band director at the high school.”
He bellows out in laughter. “What a pathetic, pointless job.”
She clenches her teeth. “He’s spreading the joy of music to ordinary people.”
“Band students are not ordinary people. They’re just pimpled kids too awkward to do sports, too dull to do theater, and too tone deaf to sing. So you give these kids a hunk of metal to blow into and just pray to God they don’t bop someone on the head and hurt ‘em.”
He covers his ears. “You don’t have to say anymore. I’m already insulted. You have kids?”
He sighs in satisfaction. “I miss you,” he says.
“Ok,” she says before disappearing into the kitchen. There are only a few customers in the diner now, but we don’t see her for another twenty minutes before Chance waves down the manager and asks him to track down our waitress. She comes back to our table with her notepad covering her eyes.
“Look Mazie, I’m sorry. Sometimes I come across as brash and tactless. That’s Chance Casper talking.”
“You can’t hide behind a name. You weren’t suddenly reborn as Chance Casper. The same old Stanley Goldstein lies behind those eyes. A new name and a fresh shave don’t give you a clean slate.”
“Look, I haven’t slept well in days, and I’m feeling emotional now, thinking this might be my last time in Fargo. You know, this was our last show tonight.”
“And you picked Fargo of all places.” She places her hand over her heart. “On behalf of the citizens of Fargo, I’m honored you chose our city to be your final resting spot.”
He makes no secret that he’s livid, and I feel caught between an ex-lovers’ quarrel, a witness to his self-annihilation.
She lays her notepad on the table. “I’m sorry I missed it. Really. How was it? Did you play The Well?”
“Really? That was my favorite.”
“Mazie, it was pretentious crap.”
“Oh my God, how can you say that! ‘Your perception is in the angle of the reflection that meets your eye.’ I love that line.”
“For Once then Something. Robert Frost. You showed me that poem. All I did was twist his language around a bit.”
“Under the surface is a glimpse of something—maybe nothing—but it bends your mind.”
“Stop!” he snaps.
“What do you have against your early stuff?” she asks.
“Because it wasn’t me. And you should have been able to tell that the chord progression of The Well followed the one in the old tango we used to listen to. You remember the one, Por Eso Me Siento Mal, from our Buenos Aires days?”
The Well basically consists of a bass hook and a whiney keyboard that repeat endlessly until the chorus that is nothing but “Ohs.” It was his only commercial hit, but it came at a price. People wanted more of that hooky pop. Chance didn’t want any part of it.
She stares back towards the kitchen as if searching for some impending crisis. “I didn’t know any better. But I still love those songs from your first album.”
“I could’ve written a thousand tunes like that and retired with a mansion in The Hills.”
“Why didn’t you? Nobody needs to know how you came up with the songs, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care.”
“I care. And I didn’t do this just for the money. That first album was to get us in the mix. Mindless ear candy for the masses and the musically ignorant. All artists have to sell out a little to pay the bills. After that, it was all about the music. I had to break free from the template of the past. You’ll never understand. Most people don’t get my music, and I can’t help that. It’s the price you pay for originality and freedom. I had no fear. I could write rockin’ rhythms, stilted rhythms, 5/4, 7/8 time, tk-a-boom-boom-chahh. I could layer melodic lines with slowly diverging contrapuntal phrases and make atonal beauty. Pure originality is hard to appreciate.”
She drops her head and speaks mostly to her Adidas. “There’s no such thing as pure originality. You can’t escape the past. It hangs on.”
“I broke free.”
“It hangs on to us. Being interesting to yourself doesn’t make you anything. Art doesn’t exist without people to share it with. All that matters is how you affect people.”
“My music will be important. If no one clears the table and starts over, how does anything change? We’ll go on recycling old tunes until creativity is sucked right out of our consciousness. That’s why I threw it all out there. Each song contains a little bit of everything. If you could just understand—”
“I don’t, Chance. You can’t suddenly decide to redefine music.”
“Why not? Sounds have no inherent meanings. Music needs no bounds because it recreates life, and life is not contained within an octave, and it doesn’t follow a particular scale or stay within a dynamic range, so why should music?” He’s almost out of breath. “I know you’ll argue—”
“—each song is just a moment, like one of your little paintings, but within one moment can’t a man be helplessly in love, stricken with jealousy, mad with rage, slightly wistful…soundly defeated?”
“I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
“I was speaking hypothetically.” He gathers his breath. “Look, I’m only here for a short time. My plane leaves late tomorrow night. You wanna go do something?”
“He won’t let you have friends?”
“He’d be fine with it. I’m the one who’d have the problem.”
Chance looks like he’s about to choke. “You really hate me that much, don’t you.”
She glares at him.
Several inebriated Santas stagger into the diner and slump into a corner booth. They’re all too young and too hardened to be convincing. They each have their Santa hats on, but they’ve unstuffed their bellies and pulled their beards under their chins making them look a little Amish except for their obvious disdain for their seasonal job. It’s a short-term gig, the Santa thing—two weeks tops—but their caffeine-craved faces are more than a pair of rosy cheeks from being jolly. One of them passes by us on the way to the bathroom and glances in our direction, which I’m sure Chance will misinterpret as recognition.
“I don’t hate you,” Mazie says.
“Maybe the three of us could do something,” he says. “I’ve gotta meet the guy.”
“And what? You and I would reminisce about the past?”
“I thought you’re the one who loves the past.”
She picks up her notepad and jots something down.
He tries get a look at what she’s writing but she conceals it against her chest. “What did you write?” he asks.
“Don’t want to forget what you said, so I wrote it down.”
He grabs her arm, but she pulls away fiercely. “Read me what you wrote.”
She runs her fingers over the words a few times before she reads them aloud. “Eggs. Toast. Bacon. Make you fat. Anything else?”
“More time with you.”
She shakes her head in disgust. “What world do you live in?”
“Well, you and I are talking here. How does that fit with your enlightened morality?”
“You’re my customer.”
“In that case, have you ever thought about investing in gold? It’s the safest investment in these financially uncertain times. Come be a customer of Goldstein and I’ll tell you all about it. Lunch at noon?”
She turns to walk away. “Do-I-take-that-chance,” she repeats like a mantra as she laughs and shakes her head.
He finally acknowledges my existence again and asks me, “What did she mean by that? ‘Do I take that chance?’ Or did she mean ‘Do I take that Chance?’ Or ‘Do I take that, Chance?’ I swear to God, I really need a middle man to explain her little riddle that’s probably nothing more than just a joke, but it makes me feel small.”
The santa passes us on his way back to his table and laughs. He’s caught the tail end of Mazie’s performance. Chance threaten him with a spoon as the santa joins his friends. “Do you know who I am!” he calls out. Every head turns to look at Chance, but the one he’s concerned with doesn’t flinch. She continues on her path and disappears again into the kitchen. She doesn’t return.
We’re stuck at the airport the next night since all the evening flights have been delayed until morning. I’m accompanying Chance back to Boston. I have family I need to see there, too. The sun eventually rises and we’re allowed on the plane along with other weary-eyed passengers bundled up in scarves and coats. My first attempt at doing an interview was a complete failure. A wasted flight for an unpublishable piece. I find my seat and immediately check out the on-flight music selection. There he is. At least one of his albums made it—his first one, Arcade Plush. As we ascend into the white sky, I can see the virginal snow expanding across the land until it merges at the horizon with the stratus clouds. There is so much beauty on that vast, frosty canvass. Whiteness closes in until I can no longer see the wings. When exactly that happened, I’m not really sure. It’s a thousand miles to where we’re going, but I won’t be sleeping anytime soon.